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Reading Fiction to Write Fiction

One of the ways I prepare to write a novel is by doing a lot of reading. While some of that reading is nonfiction research to help me with the time period, jargon, or specific details surrounding the novel or topic, some of my most potent research comes from reading fiction.

There are a few ways reading fiction can help with the writing process:

1. Familiarization

Getting familiar with your genre allows you to internalize story structures, characters, and tropes within the genre and speak about the genre with authority. You can find inspiration in what other people have written and you can figure out what concepts have been written about extensively or haven’t been covered at all. Also, the more familiar you are with your genre, the easier it will be to determine comp titles, which are used to pitch your book and for agents and editors to determine the marketability of your work.

2. Internalization

Just like how you can internalize tropes of your genre, you can also internalize the descriptive and narrative techniques of your favorite authors. If you start to analyze why a particular device works, you can start to understand how to recreate and use that technique in your own writing.

3. Research

Reading fiction set in the same time period as your work or about the same subject matter can do some of your research heavy lifting by generating a list of what you need to research to establish authenticity or accuracy. You also might be able to pick up some details from those published novels (just make sure you double check that those details are accurate and fit your story).

Now that you’re on board with reading fiction to write fiction, you have to start reading as a writer and not just for enjoyment. It may sound difficult, but with a few tools, a plan, and some practice, you’ll be ready to dissect any novel.

Tools & Organization

The three most helpful tools for reading as a writer are a set of color-coded page flags, a pencil for underlining, and a notebook. If you’re reading eBooks, page flags won’t be so helpful, but most eReaders have highlighting or note-taking options, so familiarize yourself with what you can use in your app to mark your eBooks.

While you could use any page flags, or even just dog-ear your book, I prefer using color-coded flags (or color-coded highlighting on eReaders)—this was especially useful when I was just starting to develop my skill of reading as a writer.

Pink—anything involving character development, which may include dialogue, reactions and descriptions

Blue—setting and physical description

Purple—world-building dealing with history, politics, religion, or other abstract ideas (to differentiate from setting description)

Yellow—compelling language; sentences that have excellent imagery, syntax, and rhythm

If there’s a different area you need to study (dialogue, how plot fits together, etc), you may decide to swap out a label, or get a pack of page flags with more colors. The important thing is to pick what each color represents and be consistent with it.

In addition to organizing your notes, color coding helps create a guideline for what you’re looking for as you read. If you’ve thought about it before you start reading, it’s easier to tune into craft as you read.

Since a flag only identifies what page you want to review, you’ll need to mark exactly what on the page is drawing your attention. There are a few options for doing this, which I’ve divided between those who will brazenly write in books and those who like to keep their books pristine or who are borrowing books.

Write In

  • Underline in pencil or pen
  • Highlight using your flag color coding

No Write In

  • Take a picture of the page
  • Write down the quotes in a notebook

Regardless of your method, document the sentences/paragraphs you want to come back to review. If you are writing them in a notebook, it’s helpful to include a page reference in case you need the full page context later.

Study Plan

Once you’re in the groove of tagging, you need to have a plan for how to go from reading fiction to learning from fiction. This is when your notebook will come into play.

When you’ve finished a few chapters, or are at a comfortable stopping point, go through your flags to study what you’ve marked. Compiling notes every few chapters ensures those chapters are still fresh in your mind and makes analysis a little easier.

The most organized way of studying the highlighted material is to go through your flags by color, grouping your notes by topic of study. By focusing on one topic at a time, you might start to see patterns and make connections about what you’re seeing the author do.

Consider this routine as you start:

  • Copy the quote in your notebook.
  • Underneath, write why you captured the quote.
    • What made you think this was exemplary writing? What about it drew your attention? How does it provide context to the wider narrative?
  • After you’ve organized the quotes for one flag color, start thinking about how you can use these same techniques in your own writing. In short, what can you learn about writing from reading this novel?
  • Summarize what you learned. Include a checklist of strategies and techniques you want to try. You might refer back to the quotes to identify examples for each strategy.

If you don’t copy the quotes in a notebook, I recommend at least capturing what you learned from the book. It’s easier to try writing strategies if you have a list of writing strategies you want to try.

Read & Practice

Practicing is the only way to develop the skill of reading as a writer. A good way to practice is by studying a book you’ve already read. Using a book you already know well, you can start to see how the beginning affects the end, and you might even notice more writerly things because you’re less concerned with knowing what happens since you already know the plot and outcome.

If you find it difficult to keep track of all the things going on in a book, consider focusing on one thing. Personally, I struggle with knowing where to incorporate description, so I might decide to just focus on how characters and locations are described and when those details enter the narrative. Starting by focusing on one area of craft can help you learn how to identify and appreciate individual elements of craft within the wider narrative and can help you build the skill of reading as a writer.

As you continue to develop this skill, you may be able to skip some of the steps, eventually passing on page flags, or just keeping a notebook beside you as you read. However your process evolves, ask yourself two questions when you finish reading a book: What did I learn from this? What can I apply to my own writing?

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A Writer Who Reads to Write

I previously mentioned that before the MFA program I wasn’t reading very much. There was one year when I read no more than 10 books, and another in which I think I only reread Harry Potter. By contrast, the MFA program at UCF requires a lot of reading. In addition to literature classes and assigned readings, they require a book list of at least fifty books alongside the creative thesis. These books are meant to inform the content of your thesis and the development of your craft. Ideally I would read books by authors I wanted to emulate, or that had content similar to what I was writing, or that could be used for research or further craft development.

“Sure,” I thought, as I read the requirement, “makes sense.” And I got started putting together a book list. I had no idea the way these books would wind up impacting my novel.

I read The Difference Engine and Nights at the Circus and dared myself to write descriptions as vividly as Gibson and Sterling and Carter.

I read The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey and carefully noted passages related to description of automaton restoration to figure out how to provide enough technical information to show a character’s mastery without boring the reader.

I read Victorian novels and wound up getting obsessed with how the structure differs from contemporary literature.

I read Ready Player One and reconnected with modern plot structure, and understood how to write a story with an escalating menace rather than a Big Bad.

I read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and starting thinking more and more about twists and defying expectations, and nearly ripped apart my novel to add a second narrator (it didn’t need it, but I considered it, and in considering it evaluated the choice for a single narrator).

I read Shanna Swendenson’s Rebel Mechanics and found a novel that was sort of like mine (but not at all), but it made me feel like there was a market for the novel I was writing.

I read steampunk short story collections and K. W. Jeter and Neal Stephenson and Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest. All of it—everything I read—I devoured in a new way. I wasn’t reading for pleasure. I wasn’t reading to consume. I was reading to learn and I was reading to apply what I was learning directly to what I was writing. At the end of every book, I sat back and I asked, “What did I learn from reading this? How can I apply that to my manuscript?”

Reading nonfiction for research always made sense to me, but I’d never thought about how reading fiction can also be research. It’s more than just knowing my genre and being familiar with writers I want to sit beside on a bookshelf. It’s experiencing how they put together their stories, characters, worlds, and even sentences. It requires deliberate reading and self-direction, but it is one of the MFA “tricks” I’ll be continuing. I’m not just a writer who reads, I’m a writer who reads to write.

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MFA Proving Ground

You might be asking, “why did a genre writer who doesn’t want to teach decide to get an MFA?” That is a question I asked myself a few times (especially when I was struggling to find a thesis director), but the truth is that for me, an MFA wasn’t about starting an academic career, and it wasn’t about the degree. It was about framing myself to take the plunge to be a full-time writer.

My decision to pursue an MFA grew out of a desire to change my life. I had moved in with my parents after a divorce and while my job was in publishing, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I wanted to write, but abandoning financial security was terrifying, not to mention that at the time I was fighting through such extensive creative and confidence roadblocks that I was certain to fail if I went it alone.

Which is why an MFA program was perfect for me.

An MFA program would provide the structure I needed to get serious about writing. I would write a novel! I would be a daily writer! I would write 5 or 6 hours a day! I would write 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 words daily! I would be utterly prolific!

Okay, perhaps some of those ambitions were a little naive, but the MFA did provide structure—I am highly motivated by good grades, after all. Academic success was a familiar motivator, wholly removed from the fear of publication and hunting for an agent, so as I wrote, the fear of producing content melted and changed. The more I wrote, the more I felt I could write. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself because in the first semester there was actually very little writing and a LOT of reading.

Reading to Write

While the program I attended at University of Central Florida is workshop focused, there are still a number of literature classes to take and books to read. And from someone who had been working 50-hour work weeks and trying to salvage a failing marriage, it had been a long time since I’d read more than ten books in a year. I was going to have to read ten books a semester. For one class. Eep! The first year was an adjustment, which meant that while I was writing, it was in no way daily or prolific. I wrote the drafts and revisions necessary for class requirements but I didn’t write much beyond that, and I didn’t write regularly.

At the time it was frustrating, but as I accepted my situation I came to understand the benefits of the mountain of reading. It helped me get back in touch with analyzing literature to be able to extract ideas and skills to use in my own writing, and—the big one—it taught me to manage my time and to read regularly again. Reading regularly as a writer is important. You don’t have to read a book a week, or anything else as crazy as the expectations of an MFA program, but reading regularly—within your genre, out of it, and books on craft—is important to developing a writing life.

A Writing Life

After a year and a half in the program, after getting more comfortable with the pressure of writing for my degree and more confident about my ability to write on demand, in January 2016 I started writing every day. It was a “commitment” I usually made and ignored, so when I accidentally discovered that I’d written daily that first week, I challenged myself to write daily for the rest of the month. Imagine my delight when I succeeded! Then I decided to do another month. And another. And then the year.

Over the next year, writing daily, I completed a novel for my master’s thesis. I wasn’t writing 3,000 words a day (I’m still not), and there were plenty of days when I wrote only 300 words a day, but I wrote daily, I had a schedule for completing revisions, I had a full-time writing life, and—most importantly—I had an idea of how to translate what I’d done during the MFA into a routine that didn’t include the safety-net motivation of an academic setting.

Could I have achieved this without the structure of an MFA program? Maybe, but I honestly don’t think so. The program allowed me to build confidence in myself while testing out the waters of being a full-time writer. It provided external motivation that wasn’t as nerve-wracking as other external motivation (needing to pay bills and eat, among them). I could quit my job and dedicate myself to full-time writing because I felt like I was working toward something else (a degree)*. The MFA program was a proving ground, and of all the lessons I learned, the ones about how to organize myself for a writing life were the most valuable.

*I should note that I had funding that covered tuition, health insurance, and a stipend, so my MFA pursuit was relatively risk-free. Not everyone has that luxury, so I don’t think an MFA is for everyone. School is expensive, yo.